I haven’t watched TV in about nine years, but if things haven’t changed much, various food interests periodically run campaigns advertising a certain meat that is in need of a popularity boost. When I was a boy it was lean beef. I never thought Australians could be accused of eating too little beef, but I remember a certain ad involving three men on a life raft fantasizing about steak. “I start with a beautifully lean oysterblade steak, seared and sealed on both sides…” Funny how that line is still embedded in my brain when the principles of integral calculus seem to have leaked out. Anyway, the ads always ended with the slogan “today’s steak. Can you think of anything better?” or “shouldn’t you lean towards beef?”
Well, yes and no.
See, I like steak, but it isn’t a health food. It never was, it never will be, no matter how lean it gets. And here’s the big thing: I was tricked. Lean steaks are no good. They simply aren’t. What they are is cheaper to produce. I was tricked by an ad campaign so that in the years that followed I deliberately sought out the leanest cuts of meat. I’m still pissed off about this.
Here in the States we have the USDA grading system to tell us exactly how awful is the steak we are buying. The ranking system works like this:
Prime: highest quality, lots and lots and lots of intramuscular fat, known as marbling. This isn’t the unchewable strip of gristle you trim from the steak, this is fat that melts at a low temperature and is the reason beef can be the most succulent thing on Earth (after unicorn). It is as far from lean as you can possibly get.
Choice: what you buy in a good supermarket. No marbling.
Select: the lowest commercial grade. It used be known as ‘good,’ in the same way that you used to be able to buy a ‘small’ shake at McDonalds.
Standard: the most charitable thing you can say about this grade is that it’s cheap.
Jeffrey Steingarten, the amazingly famous food writer for Vogue, informs me that there used to be four more grades on each end of this scale: that is to say, there was once a much higher classification than ‘prime.’ What happened? Just that no one raises beef of that quality anymore, because it isn’t economical. Sadly, your only chance at really good steak expired with the thirties. Kobe beef is pretty good. If you fed me on beer and massaged me with sake I’d probably taste okay too. I hate economics.
Until very recently, prime steak was only sold to high-end steakhouses. That is to say, you couldn’t buy it retail, except mail-order at a cost of several hundred dollars for a few pounds of meat. However, thanks to the global recession, beef farmers have had to unload their product on the common market. Now is your chance! Head to a gourmet supermarket and pick up a USDA certified prime rib eye right now!
Rib eye, no matter what anyone says, is the best cut of steak. It’s called Scotch fillet in Australia. Tenderloin (“eye fillet”) and New York strips are overrated. Tri-tips are pretty good, if they are Kobe-style and well marbled. But rib eye, hands down, wins the tenderness contest.
Probably the only real way to cook a steak is on a flame grill, but I don’t have one, so here is how to cook a steak on a stovetop:
Heat up some olive oil and butter in a cast iron pan. Yes, it needs to be cast iron, which gets really, really hot. Wait until everything is smoking and the fire alarm is going off, and toss in the steak.
Sear it one minute, no longer, and then flip it and sear the other side. It should be nice and charred on the outside and still cold and raw inside.
Take it out of the pan, take the pan off the heat, and let the steak rest for ten minutes on a plate. Season it with a few good grinds of salt and pepper.
Return the steak to the pan along with any juices that have leaked out in the resting period, and put the pan in a 250°F oven for about ten minutes.
To finish, reheat the pan to smoking and briefly sear the steak again. If it is too raw for your tastes, sear it a little longer. You will need to make little cuts into it to check its doneness, but don’t be fooled: it’s doner than it looks. In the words of P. J. O’Rourke, “just when you think it should cook a little longer, take it out.”
Good steak is wonderful by itself, but a good sauce can make it better still. Here is one my wife makes:
Wasabi-Cilantro Steak Sauce
1 ¼ cups white wine
2 Tb white wine vinegar
¼ cup diced shallots
1 Tb wasabi paste
1 Tb soy sauce
1 cup (yes, one whole stick) unsalted butter
¼ cup finely chopped cilantro
Combine wine, vinegar, and shallots. Reduce over low heat to 2 Tb (approx).
Strain out the shallots. My wife uses a martini shaker for this.
Add wasabi and soy and butter. Once all mixed and melted, add cilantro.
My friend Rich D’Amato shared this story with me about the significance and rarity of really good steak. The restaurant he is referring to is one of the top steak houses in New York, the kind of if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it-and-anyway-we-have-a-Michelin-star joint I’ll never get to eat in. Take it away, Rich:
Back in the late eighties, Peter Luger In Brooklyn had a total lock on the best of the prime short loins in the NY market, which were the best in the U.S… I had a meat purveyor with whom I was doing at least 1.5 M a year in wholesale purchases for our restaurants. I said “Lou, get me one of them.” He said, “impossible… ” We wound up having to bribe a security guard $100 at 4 am to just let us look over the short loins and select ONE before she ( the tyrant) arrived at the market to pick the best of the best. The entire industry was terrified of her! Once we asked her in the restaurant if she would give us a tour of the the kitchen as a professional courtesy. She said “No,” and walked away from our table. She has since softened. Your point is well taken. Get some well marbled prime now. It’s a whole lot easier.